the sociology of corporate perks

The business press has always had a tendency to focus on the perks offered to staff in tech firms. I don’t think they’re manifestations of enlightened, almost non-hierarchical leadership, as some would suggest. But I don’t think they’re trivial either. But don’t take my word for it – here’s Eric Schmidt (and Jonathan Rosenberg) discussing this policy in How Google Works loc 591:

In Google’s case, our approach to facilities was grounded in the company’s beginnings in a Stanford dorm room. Larry and Sergey set out to create an environment similar to a university, where students have access to world-class cultural, athletic, and academic facilities … and spend most of their time working their butts off. What most outsiders fail to see when they visit Google is the offices where employees spend the bulk of their time. Follow your typical Googler (and probably LinkedIn, Yahoo, Twitter, or Facebook employee, although the last time we tried we got stopped by security) from the volleyball court, café, or kitchen back to their workspace and what will you find? A series of cubicles that are crowded, messy, and a petri dish for creativity. 

This seems straight forward to me: Google style corporate perks are a deliberate attempt to make the intensification of work bearable, if not desirable, for staff with sufficient autonomy to preclude their simply being ordered to work for 80+ hours a week. In fact the authors come close to saying this explicitly in terms of what I think of as chronoreflexivity on a later page, loc 828:

it’s not a key component of your job to ensure that employees consistently have a forty-hour workweek. We’ve both worked with young moms who go completely dark for a few hours in the evening, when they are with their families and putting their kids to bed. Then, around nine, the emails and chats start coming and we know we have their attention. (Dads too, but the pattern is especially true for the working moms.) Are they overworked? Yes. Do they have too much to do at home too? Yes. Are they sacrificing their family and life for work? Yes and no. They have made their lifestyle decisions. There are times when work overwhelms everything and they have to make sacrifices, and they accept that. But there are also those times when they sneak away for an afternoon to take the kids to the beach or—more likely—have the gang drop by the office for lunch or dinner. (Google’s main campus courtyard on a summer evening looks like family camp, there are so many children running around while their parents enjoy a nice dinner.) The intense stretches may last for weeks or even months, especially in start-ups, but they never last forever. Manage this by giving people responsibility and freedom. Don’t order them to stay late and work or to go home early and spend time with their families. Instead, tell them to own the things for which they are responsible, and they will do what it takes to get them done. Give them the space and the freedom to make it happen.

They’re also explicit about seeking to engineer long hours in the office because of the value potentially found in serendipitous encounter. From loc 646-661:

There is a method to this madness, and it’s not profligacy. We invest in our offices because we expect people to work there, not from home. Working from home during normal working hours, which to many represents the height of enlightened culture, is a problem that—as Jonathan frequently says—can spread throughout a company and suck the life out of its workplace. Mervin Kelly, the late chairman of the board of Bell Labs, designed his company’s buildings to promote interactions between employees. 35 It was practically impossible for an engineer or scientist to walk down the long halls without running into a colleague or being pulled into an office. This sort of serendipitous encounter will never happen when you are working at home. Google’s AdSense36 product, which developed into a multibillion-dollar business, was invented one day by a group of engineers from different teams who were playing pool in the office. Your partner or roommate is probably great, but the odds of the two of you coming up with a billion-dollar business during a coffee break at home are pretty small, even if you do have a pool table. Make your offices crowded and load them with amenities, then expect people to use them.